For many tourists, the Caribbean is a paradise. A place outside of time – with no history and no future. A place for cocktails on the beach and an escape from the relentless rhythms of modern life. But to me, the Caribbean has always been beautiful because of its history, not in spite of it.
A crossroads of cultures – African, Indigenous, Asian and European – it is a place where slavery and colonialism cast long shadows. But it is also a place of joy and hope, not just of pain. When writing my first novel, River sing me home, which is about a mother searching for her children after slavery was abolished, I wanted to focus on all the ways the people of the Caribbean resisted their exploitation and made some kind of freedom for themselves, sometimes in desperate circumstances. All of the books below I like because they do not shy away from the pain and suffering of the Caribbean’s past (and present), but show the people of the Caribbean as agents of their own liberation and authors of their own destinies.
My grandparents moved from Saint Lucia to the UK in 1957. I was born and raised in London, a far cry from the humid heat and tropical rains of my grandparents’ childhood. So when I visit the Caribbean it is at once familiar and unfamiliar to me—experiencing its beautiful landscape as an outsider, but then seeing the name of a village and recognizing it as a kinship home, or noticing hibiscus growing on the side on the road and remembering stories of my mother crushing flowers to make shampoo. Perhaps it is this feeling of being somewhere in between, whether it is to belong or not, that makes me love Caribbean literature so much—helping, as it does, to bring me closer to my heritage and to my ancestors.
George Laming, In the castle of my skin
This semi-autobiographical novel set in 1930s Barbados (around the time my grandfather would have been a little kid) is wonderfully immersive. One scene—like the kids rushing to catch crabs on the beach—can roll over pages and pages, completely transporting you. I also like the nuanced handling of race, masculinity, and colonialism.
Derek Walcott omeros
Derek Walcott won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992, and this epic poem is probably my favorite of all his works. Classical references intertwine with the story of island life, the language is beautiful and everything is portrayed with a deep sense of history. Every time I read it, I get something new from it.
Cordella Forbes Long history of sugar
Caribbean literature, like Latin American literature, often excels in touches of magical realism or folklore. Forbes’ novel, about two unlikely friends in Jamaica on the cusp of island independence, has a mythic feel to it. The scale is at once epic – examining colonialism and its effects – and deeply human, as the two protagonists give their heart to it.
Monique Roffey Black mermaid snail
Another novel depicted with a kind of magic, this book of poetry details a mermaid who ends up living among the humans in Trinidad. The most memorable are the clips in which Roffy describes a mermaid in her true form, a sea creature more adorable than a Disney Princess, something powerful yet strangely beautiful.
Andrea Levy small island
After World War II, thousands of people moved from the Caribbean to the United Kingdom. Andrea Levy’s novel is one of the most poignant portraits of the Windrush generation – of which my grandparents were a part – detailing the discrimination and hardship they faced and the resilience they showed in building a new home for themselves. But it’s also tender and deeply sympathetic in dealing with the white people whose lives these immigrants intersect, resulting in a novel that’s – like the one Gale Windrush brings us down – that is as British as it is Caribbean.
marlon james, The Book of Women of the Night
This novel centers around Lilith and the other enslaved women around her on a plantation in Jamaica. Told in a narrative voice that perfectly captures the cadences of Caribbean discourse, it focuses on anti-slavery without having an overly simplistic moral sense. The characters are all disparate, complex people who navigate impossible brutality however they can, and they really stayed with me.
CLR James, Black Jacobins
As impressive a work of history as a novel, CLR James’ iconic account of the Haitian Revolution has brought a shamefully neglected part of Caribbean history to broader historical interest. James’ novel centers around revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture—perhaps at times to his detriment, as he slips into the old “great man” theory of history. But James’ protagonist is mysterious enough to make it work.
K Miller, The things you withheld
This beautiful collection of essays by gay Jamaican author K. Miller is wide-ranging, lyrical, and thought-provoking. Miller is an expert at delving into the gap between what’s said and what’s not said, and in one essay he conjures up the powerful image familiar to every Caribbean family of an old woman, half-hidden in the corner, who is the bearer of family secrets.
Jamaica Kincaid, Small place
This powerful and polemical article is challenging but essential reading for anyone traveling to the Caribbean as a tourist. Writing about her hometown of Antigua, Kinkaid is unwavering in her critique of colonialism and neo-colonialism in the Caribbean without slipping into simplistic morals.
River sing me home by Eleanor Shearer Available from Berkeley, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.